Scarlet fever–past and present

While “flesh-eating infections” caused by the group A streptococcus (Streptococcus pyogenes) may grab more headlines today, one hundred and fifty years ago, the best known and most dreaded form of streptococcal infection was scarlet fever. Simply hearing the name of this disease, and knowing that it was present in the community, was enough to strike fear into the hearts of those living in Victorian-era United States and Europe. This disease, even when not deadly, caused large amounts of suffering to those infected. In the worst cases, all of a family’s children were killed in a matter of a week or two. Indeed, up until early in the 20th century, scarlet fever was a common condition among children. The disease was so common that it was a central part of the popular children’s tale, The Velveteen Rabbit, written by Margery Williams in 1922.

Luckily, scarlet fever is much more uncommon today in developed countries than it was when Williams’ story was written, despite the fact that we still lack a vaccine for S. pyogenes. Is it gone for good, or is the current outbreak in Hong Kong and mainland China a harbinger of things to come? More below…
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Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 3

I left off yesterday with the initial discovery of “Vero toxin,” a toxin produced by E. coli (also called “Shiga toxin” or “Shiga-like toxin”). Though this may initially seem unconnected to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the discovery of this cytotoxin paved the way for a clearer understanding of the etiology of this syndrome, as well as the mechanisms by which disease progressed. By the early 1980s, several lines of research pointed toward E. coli, and particularly O157:H7, as the main cause of HUS.

A 1982 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR report found a rare E. coli serotype, O157:H7, associated with hemorrhagic colitis following consumption of hamburgers. Similar results were reported in a 1983 Lancet paper, which found serotype O157 among their collection of verotoxin-producing strains. Another paper that same year from a Canadian group showed that O157:H7 was the second most common cytotoxic strain in their collection of over 2,000 E. coli isolates. The most common was serotype O26–more on that below. This paper also discussed an outbreak of hemorrhagic colitis that had occurred at a nursing home, with O157 identified as the cause. The evidence was mounting, but these were small studies and not always associated with HUS. Still, these papers collectively were suggestive of a connection between E. coli infection (especially with strains that produced the shiga/vero toxin), hemorrhagic colitis, and HUS.

In 1985, a new study came out which really helped to seal the deal. Rather than look only at cases in isolation, the authors designed a case-control study looking at patients with “idiopathic HUS” (in other words, HUS of unknown origin which started with diarrhea, rather than the other variant lacking this symptom). They ended up with 40 patients who qualified. They then picked a single control for each patient, matching them on age, sex, and season of the year. The controls were children either diagnosed with Campylobacter enterocolitis (and therefore, enterocolitis of a known cause) or were healthy children either from a local daycare center, or kids coming in for elective surgeries. Stools were collected from each group and tested for a variety of organisms, including vero toxin-producing E. coli (VTEC, also known as STEC for the shiga-like toxin nomenclature). They also tested for activity of the toxin itself in fecal samples. Finally, in the case patients, attempts were made to collect what are called “acute” and “convalescent” blood samples. These are samples taken when the patient is actually sick (“acute”), and then ones taken a few weeks later (“convalescent), to look at the presence of antibodies in the blood. If it was an infection by the suspected organism (in this case, STEC/VTEC), you should see a rise in antibodies the host produces that target the organism–for these kids, they were looking for antibodies to the shiga/vero toxin.

They found either vero toxin or VTEC in 60% of the case patients, but in none of the controls. Of the VTEC isolated, serotypes included O26, O111, O113, O121, and O157. For the latter, it was the most common type isolated (25% of the VTEC found). Of the patients who were negative for both VTEC and vero toxin, from those who had paired blood samples (12/16 of the remaining cases), 6 did show a rise in antibody titer against the vero toxin–suggesting they had been exposed and were producing antibodies to neutralize the toxin. So, for those keeping score, 75% of the cases had evidence of VTEC infection either by culture or serological techniques. It may not have been the nail in the coffin and there are certainly some flaws (the diversity of controls and lack of analysis of blood titers for the controls being two that pop out at me), but this paper went a long way toward establishing VTEC/STEC as the cause of HUS, which has been subsequently confirmed by many, many studies worldwide.

The most common vehicles of transmission of these organisms have also come into clearer focus since the 1950s, with almost all HUS/STEC outbreaks associated with food products; most common is still the O157:H7 serotype. O157 is a bit unique, in that this strain typically doesn’t ferment sorbitol–as such, this is often used as a diagnostic feature that sets it apart from “normal” E. coli. However, as I mentioned above (and as the current outbreak has shown), a number of other serotypes besides O157:H7 can also cause HUS. Most of these don’t appear to be as commonly associated with outbreaks–rather, they may more commonly cause sporadic disease where fewer people may become sick. Because these don’t have the unique sorbitol-non-fermenting feature, these may be overlooked at a diagnostic lab. There are assays that can detect the Shiga-like toxin directly (actually, we now know there are multiple families of related toxins), but not all labs use these routinely, so it’s likely that the incidence of infection due to non-O157 STEC is higher than we currently know.

HUS was once a mysterious, “complex” disease whose perceived etiology shifted almost overnight, as scientific advances go. What implications does this have for other diseases whose etiology is similarly described as HUS was 50 years ago? More on that tomorrow.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 2

As I mentioned yesterday, the epidemiology of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) was murky for several decades after it was first defined in the literature in 1955. In the ensuing decades, HUS was associated with a number of infectious agents, leading to the general belief that it was a “multifactorial disease”–one that had components of genetics and environment, much like we think of multiple sclerosis today, for example.

Several HUS outbreaks made people think twice about that assumption, and look deeper into a potential infectious cause. A 1966 paper documented the first identified outbreak of HUS, which occurred in Wales. The researchers examined a number of possible environmental factors the patients may have had in common–including food, water, and various toxins–but came up empty. They sum up:

Since it is almost invariably preceded by a gastrointestinal or respiratory illness, it seems probable that it represents a response to an infection. Although Gianantonio et al. (1964) have identified one possible causative virus, it may be that various infective agents can initiate the syndrome.

This idea held throughout the next 20-odd years, as numerous studies looked at both environmental and genetic effects that may be leading to HUS. A 1975 paper examined HUS in families, suggesting that there may be two types of HUS (which we now know to be true–the genetic form is less often associated with diarrhea, and tends to have a worse prognosis as I mentioned yesterday). But still, no definitive cause for either.

There were also a number of studies testing individuals for many different types of pathogens. A 1974 paper enrolled patients in the Netherlands between 1965 and 1970, but one of the inclusion criteria was a “history of a prodromal illness in which gastrointestinal or respiratory tract symptoms were present.” The respiratory tract symptoms are mentioned in a number of papers, and were probably a red herring that sent people in search of the wrong pathogens for awhile. In this particular paper, they examined children for infection with a number of viral and bacterial pathogens, using either culture or serological methods (looking for antibodies which may suggest a recent infection). In that portion of the paper, they note a possible association with adenoviruses, but state that the data don’t support a bacterial infection–a viral etiology was deemed more likely. Regarding basic epidemiology, they did note a few small clusters of cases in families or villages, as well as a peak in cases in spring/summer–as well as an increasing number of cases from the first year of their study to the last. The epidemiology of HUS was starting to become clearer, and the syndrome appeared to be on the rise.

Even as additional case reports occasionally targeted foods as a precursor to HUS outbreaks, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that HUS really started to come into focus. In 1977, a paper was published identifying the “Vero toxin”–a product of E. coli that caused cytotoxicity in Vero cells (a line of African green monkey kidney cells, commonly used in research). Researchers were closing in.

“Pox” by Michael Willrich

Next to Ebola, my favorite virus would probably be smallpox (Variola virus). I mean, now that it’s eradicated in nature, what’s not to love about the mysteries it’s left us–where it came from, why it was so deadly (or, not so deadly, as in the emergence of the “mild” form, variola minor), and will a new poxvirus emerge to take its place? The topic is particularly germane since the debate still rages on about the fate of the world’s smallpox stocks. Smallpox has killed untold millions and influenced the destiny of societies; and as Michael Willrich details in his new book, Pox: An American History, the legacy smallpox has left us is still alive and well today.
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